Drawing a Breath

Ancient Western myth tells how art was invented: A Corinthian maid, daughter of Butades, had her hand guided by Cupid to trace the outline of her sleeping lover’s shadow.1

The connection between intimacy, trust and unlimited discovery describes the process of drawing: a dialogue of responses between contemplation and activity, awareness and repose, disclosure and concealment. Recognition and anticipation meet.

In this paper, I aim to discuss what I have called “immersive drawing” drawing that shifts the response-ability of creator and viewer, towards an interfaced, simultaneous and symbiotic relationship of observation and participation.

The dynamics of creator and viewer are relocated, empowering both experiences. Size of the work, materiality, and venue are not conditional elements of this intimate yet expansive practice. Both large-scale installation and small, hand-held works can be immersive. Their mutual aim and ultimate goal is to create a sustaining and ideally, transformational experience that goes beyond the immediate viewing. In fact, time appears to stop, stretch, and collapse simultaneously. Past, present and future are in one breath.

We experience the eternal present. We are ‘in’ the work itself.  In a way, we become the work. This paper will then, attempt to explore the experience of how the work works, that is, how it works on us, how it affects us and our perceptions. I propose that we consider drawing as a phenomenological way of being in the world, a philosophical investigation of experience. This is an invitation to consider drawing with expansive, reverberating boundaries, a practice that is continually sustaining, rewarding, and worthy of ongoing pursuit.

To support and illustrate this dynamism, we’ll consider five examples. At first viewing, these works appear to have little in common. The materials, construction and sites seem too diverse and dissimilar to have any connectivity or consistent points of reference. However, in each of these five examples our experience of where we are shifts.

Our definitive boundaries may seem porous and mutable. We feel encompassed, surrounded and included in ways beyond mere observation. We are incorporated into the work, incorporatus, united into one body. I call these works, and the experience of them, ‘immersive’.

The works consume us, putting a new spin on the buzzword ‘consumer’.

To extend the metaphor and pun even further, a new kind of currency is used, a system of exchange and value that transfers, on an ongoing basis, a vital nourishment. These works aid and assist us, acting as reminders to pay attention to who and where we are.

They challenge us to reconsider perception itself and activate our role as viewer and participant. The wide range of works I use as examples range from cave drawings to ancient and contemporary practices. These works rely and depend on the relationship of artist and viewer. As pioneer gallery director Gertrude Kasle said to me, “the varying degrees of participation are how we identify and react to the work.”2

For the most part, I will use examples of works with which I have direct experience. I am an artist, not a critic, nor art historian. My comments and observations are subjective to the highest degree. In one way, this is a much more intimate paper than the norm at a College Art Association conference, where I presented these particular ideas.

In another sense, it also addresses a wider circumference of direct experience than is usual. I am someone who believes in and is sustained by art. To paraphrase poet Audre Lorde, art is necessity not a luxury. It is with this sincerity, passion and trust that I hope my observations and comments will be taken.

I had the privilege of experiencing the Altamira caves directly, in 1998, before they were closed.  (I have read, however that they have recently been re-opened much to the concern of the protection agencies of Spain and the EU.) 3

The experience of being in and walking through the caves was breathtaking. It was also powerfully affirming. What struck me was the immediacy of their power, freshness, and timelessness. I am aware that others may find my sentiments trite and sentimental. So be it. As an artist, to be within inches of marks that were made 25,000 years ago, marks made with similar intention as so many before and after me have made, is a palpable
and moving experience.

I will also add that among the many theories of the purpose of the caves and their drawings, my feelings were primordial, with a profound understanding that the caves, among other uses of rites and rituals, were birthing chambers (Figure 1). Allowing for the differences in height from someone 25,000 years ago, the position that is necessary to navigate the caves is much easier when crouched down, with legs splayed or even
lying down completely, in order to see the images clearly. It is literally a space for transformation, a space for procreation, a birthing chamber to reveal and revel in mysteries of the known and unknown worlds.

I also visited to two older caves, 30,000 and 35,000 years old. The images and techniques got simpler as the caves got older. In the cave that was 35,000 the only marks were dots along the wall. Time collapsed as a 35,000-year-old Eva Hesse indicated, “I am here. I was here. I will be here” in the eternal present.

This immersive experience can be felt – flash-forward to 1950 – in the works of Jackson Pollock. We navigate our shifting awareness, back and forth simultaneously.

We look AT the work, a painted canvas mounted on a wall, while being IN the work experientially. It is not only the scale of the painting that is beyond our grasp. It is the immensity of the psychological space of which we are now an integral part.

Lee Krasner said that that there were two key shifts in her perspective, literally and figuratively, when making her own work.4 The first, through the influence and instruction of Hans Hoffman, was Cézanne, and shifting picture planes. The second revolution in her thinking and processes was that of Pollock.

The one-point (and privileged) perspective of  “I am here and you are there” was radicalized with Pollock’s all over, all encompassing skeins and veils. “I am here and here and here” interfaced with the psychological conundrum of “I am not here and not here and not here, either.” Our being forced off balance in Pollock required us to
instead surrender to ambiguity, paradox contradiction. There is reciprocity in Pollock’s creating his work — his physicality and all encompassing movements — with how we respond to the work itself.

In Sanskrit, this experience, ‘neti neti,’ ‘not this, not that’ is equally felt from an artist on the diametrically opposite end of Pollock’s materiality, Fred Sandback. However, Sandback himself expressed his interest in the “overall” quality of Pollock.5 It is interesting to note that Sandback’s first degree was a B.A. in philosophy at Yale University.

In his studies, Sandback may very well have read the philosophies and theories of aesthetics by Schiller and Goethe. Goethe specifically associates his observations of botany on his second trip to Rome with his direct and personal experiences of viewing and creating art, particularly within his own extensive pursuit of drawing. Goethe maintained that “ In art, as in the natural organism, it is precisely within the narrowest limits that life manifests itself most completely.”6

Fred Sandback uses the simplest of means, these ‘narrowest limits’ for his works. These “habitable drawings”7 as Sandback called them, are made from the most mundane and humblest of materials, acrylic yarn from Wal-Mart.

Sandback himself thought of thread or yarn as being akin to using a pencil. Sandback said of his work, “It’s a very basic way of expressing yourself, which is not too encumbering. I’m lucky to have a medium that allows me to stay light on my feet. It really is like drawing.”8  The impact and experience of Sandback’s work, however shatters all expectations of line, space and perception.

Sandback’s work is a visual koan. A koan is a kind of riddle. It is used in Rinzai Zen Buddhist doctrine and is a rigorous system towards enlightenment and awareness. The practitioner contemplates the koan with sustained meditation along with personal guidance in private interviews with a teacher. The process is layered with intense study and one-point concentration. The practioner is consumed by the koan. The koan may
seem illogical or nonsensical.

A commonly heard example of a koan is, “what is the sound of one hand?” This is the real koan. “What is the sound of one hand clapping” came much later to the system as a way to make the koan easier to explain and answer. There are “answers,” so to speak, to all of the koans. The understanding is demonstrated however, not by
language but by actions and experience. The student is assured, composed and confident, yet energetically and dynamically alive with a fresh and refreshing perception.

This is exactly my experience of a Fred Sandback work. Dynamically and energetically activating the space with a line. The koan of : Everything is revealed but nothing is there! Nothing is concealed, hidden or obscured. We are deceived only by our own preconceived notions of what space should be and do. Sandback makes available to us what is always present all the time. We receive the maximum, sustaining results by use of a most economical appearance. For me, Fred Sandback’s work is within a context of vast, boundlessness and delicate closeness. As close as a breath. And as necessary.

Breathing and movement are as necessary in some drawing practices as they are in dance. The choreographer Twyla Tharp invites a similar expression of being immersed, ofgoing for the maximum, an all-out, no holds barred, experience. In an email with Zee Hartmann, the archival assistant for Tharp Productions, Zee comments that Twyla “does use the word “maximum” in many contexts, always in some way talking about pushing something to its full limit.9 This may be a coda for some of my work, as well.

I am both sustained and challenged by the traditional principles of drawing such as line, shape and perspective. In my installations I aim to dispute and expand upon these accepted and customary guidelines in perplexing, amusing and surprising ways.

My disciplined training with conventional materials is interfaced with the shift and play of two dimensions to three dimensions. For instance, I extend hand drawn lines, shape and volume into, and out of, a room by using electrical tape and foam core.

The rooms I build and create invite the opportunity of being able to walk into, and be surrounded and consumed by, illusion. Abandoning true to life perception and perspective, I combine easily recognizable elements such as plants and architecture, but draw them in quirky, skewed or make believe ways. By suspending belief I can,
ideally, dismiss cynicism and encourage engaged wonderment.

Pivotal in an equation of the imaginary is the use of the familiar. In my installation, “Patterns of Love and Beauty” I amplified this illusive dynamic. The work seems to oscillate and visually question the boundaries between objects. For this particular installation at Riverviews Artspace, Lynchburg, VA, I built a three–sided room, 12 feet square, in the center of the gallery, open to the 17-foot ceiling. Tiny black line drawings of fantastical, imaginary plants cover the white painted surfaces of the walls, floor, and all the objects in this faux sitting room including a bureau, shoes, chairs, a long dress, jewelry box, mirror and ‘family photos’. An antique ceiling fan, also painted white with line drawings on it surface and frosted glass globe, hung from the ceiling, into the room.

All surfaces not readily visible, for example, under chairs, tables and inside drawers, were given equal attention with drawing, ensuring the saturation of the experience. My chosen palette of black and white reinforced the impact of dichotomy and paradox. The result is a consideration of familiarity immersed within the unexpected, examining a devotional, interior life, made visible.

The title of the installation, “Patterns of Love and Beauty”, comes from one of the last conversations I had with my father. “It’s all patterns”, he said. I was fearful that it was the morphine talking, replacing his usual acute awareness. Then he continued, “…and the patterns are Love and Beauty. Never forget that, Barbara”.

The piece has since traveled to a number of other institutions. Variations in scale and placement were made to accommodate each new gallery setting. This particular piece is similar in construction to several others I have exhibited. In these works, I created an intentional physicality to the immersive experience: an opportunity and ability to circumnavigate the work.

Previously, I had done extensive research of how people moved, usually unconsciously and automatically, within enclosed spaces, for example, shopping malls and supermarkets. These tendencies assisted my plans for constructing rooms for my installations within gallery and museum spaces for my installations.

My space planning and traffic flow studies indicated an internal, almost innate clockwise motion was the most natural, and therefore most used, for interior building plans. Similarly, the act of circumambulation has been part of my extensive studies of Buddhist temples and sites.

We are ‘in’ the work as we encircle it.  By physically encompassing the work, the relationship of being in the work and surrounding it is simultaneous. Similar to Japanese tea ceremony, the intimacy of host and guest exchange their roles and psychological positions. They remain interdependent and equal.

In other examples of my site-specific installations, the room itself is the drawing plane. Walls, ceiling and floors are utilized as drawing surfaces. In these works, a version of anamorphosis occurs; the viewer’s location and their movements within the work determines what they see. My work asks that perception, and its inherent metaphor
of a point of view, is contemplated and challenged both visually and philosophically.

There are many different systems and processes of creating, manipulating and experiencing space and illusion. There are numerous methodologies and avenues of navigating the intimacy of space and the awareness of what surrounds us. Navigating a sacred geometry of HOW to perceive invites an attention of the mind. How can the mind be aware of itself perceiving itself? Can we find a route that allows us to survey the illusion and spaciousness of the mind?

I began this paper by aiming to address visually immersive experiences that shift our awareness, inviting us to be awake. Some of the forms of the final visual system I wish to address are as old as some of the Paleolithic images with which I began this text. Its presence is as layered as Pollock and as profound as Sandback.

It is a visual, complex and layered arrangement and organization. It is used to illuminate and dispel the
hindrances, its schemes, and its unconscious tendencies that thwart true seeing. This is the purpose of a mandala. There are different kinds of mandalas: on walls, with pigment (that are ‘erased’ and removed) the body as a mandala, and a fifth kind of mandala, the mandala of the mind.

The same circumstances that are required of immersive experiences, the awareness of fragility impermanence, the dance of stability and instability are contained in the process of making and experiencing and dismantling mandalas. The Tibetan mandala is a tool and generally is depicted as a tightly balanced, geometric composition with four entrances or gates. Although it is flat, it is perceived as a three dimensional palace. Sand mandalas are unique to Tibetan Buddhism. The detailed drawings are from memory.

A simple definition of the purpose of a mandala is to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones. Is this not a similar invitation to viewing, experiencing and making art? Its aim and challenge is to simultaneously consume and heighten our attention, to transform our perception to reveal to what is already there, and be awed.

The five examples indicated in this paper demonstrate similar intentionality but with a striking difference in visual interpretation of sensation, devotion, and wonder. The intentionality of the work and its reception are interdependent, reciprocal and limitless.  The works encompass us, and we are absorbed into their world-view.
Drawing becomes a “joint product of the observer and the observed” 10 as Teilhard de Chardin stated was the condition of the universe. In all deference to de Chardin, I would slightly alter the subject from “joint product” to “joint project.” That is, that drawing is ongoing, with a goal as simple, profound and direct as making a line.


  1. Pliny, Filippo Beroaldo, and Arnold C. Klebs. Historia Naturalis. Treviso: Michael Manzolus, 1479. Print.
  2. Kasle, Gertrude, Telephone conversation with the author, December 2, 2010
  3. Govan, Fiona. (2010). “Spain to Reopen Altimira Caves Despite Risk of Destroying Prehistoric Paintings.” In The Telegraph. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
  4. Diamondstein, Barbara Lee. (1978). Inside New York’s Art World. Diamonstein-Spielvogel Video Archive, Duke University Library. Retrieved May 2, 2009
  5. Simon, Joan. (1997). “Lines of Inquiry.”Art in America, 85(5), 86-93, 143. May 1997.
  6. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. The Italian Journey (1768-1788), Translated by W.H Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, 1962, Great Britain, Penguin Classics
  7. Simon, Joan. (1997). “Lines of Inquiry.”Art in America, 85(5), 86-93, 143. May 1997.
  8. ibid
  9. Zee Hartmann, email correspondences with author, April 5-17, 2012
  10. Teilhard, De Chardin, Pierre. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper, 1959. Print.